Tag Archives: immigrant rights

The dangers of mainstreaming hate

History repeating itself.


Some of the books about the Holocaust that I read this summer made the point that, in comparison with the really violent anti-Semitism pervasive in much of German culture during the 1920s and 1930s, the Nazis’ initial overtures into that crowded field seemed, well, rather ‘reasonable’.


And, yet, as outrageous as that sounds, with today’s benefit of hindsight, it’s a dynamic that repeats itself.

When there are really hateful and dangerous voices on the scene, even other, only slightly-less-hateful voices can sound, somehow, less so.

In immigrant rights, this is dramatic and visible and really concerning.

When one legislator is advocating shooting undocumented immigrants from helicopters like feral pigs, calls to ‘just’ kick immigrant students out of college seem almost tame.

When some national political figures calls for mass deportations, plans to make life so miserable for immigrants that they will ‘self-deport’ back to their countries of origin seem like novel ideas worth exploring. Sort of.

When one anti-immigrant organization alleges that Mexicans are having babies in order to ‘reconquer’ U.S. territory, others’ pseudo-academic ‘studies’ about the negative environmental impact of immigration actually get included in congressional testimony.

Oh, actually, those are both part of the same organization, a twist on the ‘moderate by comparison’ approach.

And this is part of why paying attention to the margins matters so much: they’re not really marginal, because they drive not only what happens on the edges but also what ends up in the middle.

Then, and now.

Prepare for the worst, and open your own window of opportunity


If I hear one more person say, “We just have to wait for the pendulum to swing back,” I think I might scream.

I know that I don’t have a long history in the struggle for social justice, despite the way that my houseful of young children can make me feel old sometimes, these days. I feel that we should all have learned, though, by now, that, while the arc of the universe may bend towards justice, we surely have nothing to lose by leaning on it…quite a bit.

We have to open our own political windows of opportunity, if we possibly can.

Sometimes that means trumpeting our successes and singing our own praises from the rooftops. Sometimes our work is so extraordinary that we can create momentum where there otherwise was none.

But, sometimes, advancing our cause has to mean being prepared for something bad to happen, because that can draw attention to the needs and galvanize action, sometimes even more surely than a promising development.

Some of the organizations with which I’m working on the advocacy technical assistance project in 2013 deal with child welfare, especially the prevention of and response to child abuse, neglect, and exploitation.

For them–and, I believe, for nonprofits working in every social sector–part of developing adaptive capacity, the ability to succeed in changing political, social, and economic contexts, is the creation of a critical incident response plan.

As we’re currently walking through it together, that’s a sort of ‘wonk-ish’ way of saying ‘plan for what to do if something bad happens, in order to take advantage of the fact that reporters, and maybe even policymakers, will be calling.’

It means that, while we hope against hope that no child–ever, anywhere–loses his or her life to abuse or neglect–ever again–we also prepare for what our response would be, and how we would insert the key messages about what contributes to maltreatment and what could really prevent it, in case it does happen.

It means that we are ready, with spokespeople identified, to talk about what moving towards policies of true child welfare, not just prevention of these horrific cases, would look like, and what difference that would make for all children.

It means that we can identify, for those who WILL ask, the 3-4 policy changes that we think (while being careful not to over-promise) could reduce the likelihood that something like this happens again.

It means that we have something to say other than just, “It’s awful.”

Or, “No comment.”

When I did immigrant rights work full-time, I had letters to the editor ready for the eventuality that there was another mass fatality of individuals crossing the border. When 19 people died in a tractor-trailer, we got great coverage about the need for compassionate and workable immigration reform.

We had a plan in case an undocumented, unlicensed driver was involved in a fatal accident. We had many opportunities to use messages we developed to respond to high-profile cases of individuals and businesses caught employing unauthorized immigrant workers.

It’s not the same thing as having soundbites to insert into every media interview.

It doesn’t replace the need to respond authentically, and with empathy, to the unique circumstances at hand.

But it’s also different from just waiting for the pendulum to swing, and failing to notice all of the times that the window of opportunity is cracked open…and we blow it.

Going out with a bang: Some good news to end 2012!

If you’re anything like me, you, too, are in sore need of some good news, as we head into 2013.

This year has been rough around here–a massive tax cut turned our Kansas half-a-billion dollar ending balance into deficits as far as the eye can see.

I’m buying reams of paper for my kid’s public school. Things are depressing.

But we have to gear up for the year to come. We have a lot to do and reasons to believe that we can do much.

So, a list of some good news (not exhaustive, certainly) about which we should get excited.

I’m crowdsourcing this one, because, quite honestly, my list isn’t long enough and I need some help here. Please share your good news–encouraging progress with a client, progressive policy changes I missed, social movements that we should be excited about, even just random acts of kindness worth sharing.

As we inoculate ourselves for the year to come, we can use all the good news we can get.

  • DACA Scholarships: I love it when people get it, that immigrant students are one of the best things we have going for us, and then are willing to put their money behind supporting their dreams. This rocks.
  • The economy has improved: I don’t know if it will last, and it certainly doesn’t erase the hardship, but every new job opening means an opportunity for someone who needs one, and we need to celebrate that, even while working harder to build an economy that will really work for working people.
  • $500 can mean the difference between a kid going to college or not: Think about it. Seriously. For less than the cost of a fancy new television, we can dramatically alter a student’s educational prospects, just by providing them with seed money to orient them towards college. And, hurray! Research works, too!
  • Advocacy works, and people want to help us do it better: I’ll have more next year about the findings of this report, but, for now, I’m rejoicing that there were so many successful advocacy campaigns and advocacy organizations for them to profile. Advocacy can make a difference.
  • People are still welcoming: I love Welcoming America, and I love Welcoming Week, and I love that people–teenagers and church women and city council people and librarians and business owners–are coming together to reject anti-immigrant rhetoric and build welcoming communities that are prosperous and harmonious.
  • Scholarships to assist people with mental illness in completing higher education: I have been enriched by my opportunities to learn from my students who have mental illnesses, and I am grateful for efforts to reduce some of the barriers that these potential students face in their education.
  • Half the Sky: I really, really needed that this year. Are these women the most amazing and inspiring people? Yes. Do I appreciate even more their apparent averageness, because it challenges me to do more, instead of just putting them on a pedestal? Also yes.

What else? What good news are you sitting on that you just have to share?

“I Am Kansas.” When the Advocacy Goal is just: Change the Conversation

I would be delighted to be wrong on this one, but I think we’re going to lose, quite a bit, in 2013.

On the immigrant rights front, from which I cannot extricate myself even if I try–I know the stories too well to be a dispassionate observer to the injustices on those front lines–it could be a very, very ugly year.

But that doesn’t mean that our only option is to bang our heads against the wall, or–heaven forbid–just to sit down and take it.

If we think about the entire framework of advocacy, and all of the different avenues that are available to us, then new arenas for change open up.

Maybe the Kansas Legislature won’t be a very fruitful venue for progressive change in 2013 (THAT was as nice a way of saying that as I can possibly muster!), but we can still think about engagement with the public, media advocacy, research and policy design, and community mobilization, among others, as paths we might take.

It may even be that, sometimes, direct policy change isn’t even the ‘end’ towards which our means are directed, at least not in the short-term.

It may be that what we need to do, and the ends towards which we are aimed, is to change the conversation, to begin to bring a fuller complement of ‘our’ issues into the dialogue, and to include a better representation of the voices that matter to us.

That’s essentially the thinking behind the “I Am Kansas” campaign, launched by an organization with which I’ve worked over the years, as part of a ‘welcoming’ initiative.

It’s about highlighting the contributions of immigrants, normalizing their experiences, and counteracting some of the negative and misleading information that is pumped into the debate, in order to artificially set the parameters of acceptable policy approaches.

This isn’t just ‘loosey-goosey’ touchy-feely stuff about helping people get to know each other better.

I tend not to get too into that.

It’s intentional, and it’s linked to a theory of change and a whole psychology of policymaking decisions, that holds that people are more inclined to be comfortable harming, through policy, those who they consider to be the ‘other’.

If immigrants are ‘us’, though, then our policy options are a bit more limited.

If we can change the conversation, and change the tone, then we change the context in which policies are enacted, and stopped.

And, then,

we can start winning again.

Supreme Stakes

It’s the first Monday in October.

And here’s all I really want to say:

It has been a really big year for the judicial system (Um, the ACA, anyone?), in policymaking, and (in the crystal ball that I don’t really have) I see that continuing for quite a while.

With such polarization in the legislative and executive arenas, there is a lot of ‘envelope-pushing’ these days. And, when envelopes are pushed, sometimes details can get overlooked.

Like the Constitution.

I think we’ll see a lot more anti-immigrant legislation, which, while the Supreme Court has already green-lighted many of the Arizona-style provisions, is still likely to run afoul of preemption and equal protection, in particular, in legislators’ zealousness to ‘out-anti-immigrant’ each other.

It’s easy to imagine that Kansas might be the site of a showdown over abortion rights, and that that battle could end up in court. Kansas, too, is likely to abdicate its constitutional responsibilities in education, and many states are seriously failing students of color, in particular, in ways that invite court action. Depending on what happens in the November elections, we could see another attempt at campaign finance reform legislation, which could challenge some of the findings in the Citizens United decision.

What does this mean, on this October 1st?

That social workers had better be paying close attention, not just to the decisions that courts hand down, but to the issues where they should be asked to decide, too.

We have three branches for a reason and, even though we certainly can’t guarantee the outcome when we turn to the courts, we can’t afford to ignore one of the tools at our disposal.

The stakes are high, as I imagine the founders knew they would be, and we just might need to go to court.

A lot.

The most fun I’ve had in a long time

A lot of my time this fall has been spent working on implementation and outreach around the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy announced by the Department of Homeland Security on June 15, 2012.

For me, that day has joined the list of other momentous occasions when I ‘remember where I was’–getting the kids ready to go to the pool, quickly checking the weather on the computer, and then freezing as I read the news.

The requirements for young people to receive deferred action, which means, in most cases, protection from deportation and a work visa, for a period of two years, potentially renewable, were announced in early August, and DHS began receiving applications on August 15th (coincidentally, my son’s birthday, which I thought was a pretty nice present for him, not that I expected Secretary Napolitano to buy him anything).

I helped organize a forum for El Centro, Inc., still one of my consulting clients, on August 16th, and more than 400 young people and their families came. I still can’t decide which story moved me most, the 24-year-old new mother who hugged her newborn daughter tightly and whispered, “they won’t be able to take me away from you now,” or the 16-year-old son who embraced his father and, both of them crying, when the attorney told him that he could receive a work visa.

A week later, I participated in a clinic for deferred action-eligible youth, where I completed more than 15 applications myself, preparing paperwork to be reviewed by immigration attorneys. Again, there was the 16-year-old whose career dream is to go into inner-city youth ministry, armed with her guitar and her infectious faith. One young man, when asked if he had given any thought to what he wanted to do after high school, pulled out a college catalog with all of the courses he wanted to take circled, an annotated budget of what it would cost him, and a detailed, 10-year-plan for his post-college career. I guess he has thought about it some.

This policy is far from perfect.

Students still aren’t eligible for financial aid, and most will have to pay out-of-state tuition, which is prohibitively expensive. They could lose the ability to renew their work visas, and they are not getting any closer to permanent residency, even as they pay taxes and accrue lawful status.

It’s not the DREAM Act, and that’s what we need.

But, still, seeing dozens of kids and their parents lined up that Sunday morning, outside, wearing their church clothes and clutching all of their relevant paperwork, it felt like a victory.

Watching students diligently read and then sign the paperwork that will earn them a critical measure of security in the United States, it felt like success.

Hugging students I’ve known for 10 years and being able to congratulate them, with their parents–whose hard work and sacrifices are all for these children–looking on, it felt like, finally, winning.

On any journey for social justice, victories are critical for sustaining momentum.

These young people now know that refusing to give up and organizing in the face of high odds can make the impossible happen.

They’ve had a taste of it, and they’ll keep pushing for more.

It is a blast to get to stand alongside them.

It doesn’t ALL have to stick

All of the parenting books I’ve read over the years tend to run together, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t remember (and use) snippets of the advice. I just can’t credit it properly.

For example, one tactic that works well with my youngest son, who can tend to shut down in the face of what he sees as complex instructions, is to boil those directions down to the most essential elements. A morning interaction with him can sound like this, then: “Ben, shoes.” “Ben, backpack.”

And then we have more leisurely conversation about the other things that he wants to talk about–Curious George, candy, and, somewhat inexplicably, Gerald Ford.

But the really important parts? He needs those really stripped-down.

This came to my mind when I was reading Made to Stick over the winter. The authors remind us that not all of our communication necessarily needs to stick (an impossible aspiration anyway). We will be more successful in getting our key points across–and getting them to really move people–if we don’t try to muck them up with basically extraneous information.

Essentially, if we stop trying to get every piece of information we have about a given issue to really resonate with our target audience, we can get the (relatively few) things that are truly critical across much better.

We experienced this with our advocacy around the Food Stamp rule change that affected U.S. citizen children in mixed-status families and their eligibility for food assistance (see–I can’t even describe it without beginning to lose people!).

I spent so much energy, and sucked up so much of our targets’ attention, trying to really explain it. And it’s complex. Anything that involves phrases like “pro-rata share” and “mixed-status” and (seriously) “pre-PRWORA ineligibles” is going to be killer, right?

It seemed important, somehow, that people understood how the math worked, so that they would know that the state agency’s claims that the old formula was biased in favor of immigrant households just wasn’t true. They had to understand, right, that we don’t count the immigrant parents for the purposes of determining the household size. It matters, doesn’t it, that USDA will grant states the authority to institute a cap against which to evaluate the benefit size, if they just ask for this waiver?

Not really.

It was like the heavens opening the day I said, really in frustration, “it’s just wrong, when we decide that it’s okay to treat kids differently just because we don’t approve of their parents.”

The reporter with whom I was talking got quiet for a minute.

And I knew that was it.

The core, which had been so elusive.

Because the heart of the issue wasn’t even hunger–talking about the hardship the new rules visited upon these children inevitably brought questions about whether they were really hungry or not, how we knew that, what resources were stepping up to fill the need…blah, blah, blah.

And it wasn’t even just that these children are U.S. citizens. Everybody knew that, but that alone doesn’t really tell us much about what their legitimate claims should be.

The core is that we cannot address the needs of children in this country if we treat anti-poverty policy as a referendum on parental behavior.


That’s all that has to stick.

Then, the policy solutions that must flow from that will all have to make sure that, whatever we do, children aren’t harmed as a way to prove a point about their parents.

Do whatever math you need to to make that work; that’s our endgame, and the standard by which our policy actions must be judged.

“Ben, coat.”

And we’re ready to go.

Please guess my song: Pro-immigrant advocacy lost in translation

This week, I’m writing about some of my reactions to Made to Stick, for me, of course, not from a straight communications angle, but, instead, from the perspective of advocacy, and what lessons about strategic communications our advocacy needs to embrace if our policy ideas–and our way of viewing social problems–are to stick.

There’s a piece of the book that relays an experiment with a tapper and a guesser that, in perhaps a somewhat surprising way, makes me thinking about my immigration advocacy.

I hope it will make as much sense to you as it does in my head. I guess it will be a sort of ‘tapper and guesser’ mini-experiment right here, no?

See, in this scenario, someone is charged with tapping out the tune to a common song (think: Jingle Bells or Mary Had a Little Lamb), while someone else, who has no idea what is trying to be communicated, has to interpret the taps.

You can imagine how well this goes, right?

And here’s where the immigration advocacy piece comes in.

See, I often feel, when I’m talking 1:1 with a policymaker who is pretty ardently anti-immigrant, or giving a presentation to a Rotary Club, or even trying to have a conversation with my grandpa, that there’s a wide gap, not just in what we believe, but in what we even see.

And, of course, when there’s such a disparity between how I see the world, and this particular issue, and how someone else sees it, arriving at a conclusion about how we address the problem, about the kind of policy approaches that would bring us to resolution, is even more elusive.

I see hard-working immigrants who are essential to our prosperity; you see a threat to ‘American jobs’. I see young people whose dreams are just like my kids’; you see people who don’t belong here. I see families torn apart; you see people reaping what they sow.

Kind of like when you’re tapping My County ’tis of Thee and I’m hearing Old McDonald.

And, so, I think, our challenge in advocacy has to be to try to see the situation–to hear the tune–from the perspective of the ‘other’, so that we can start in the right place. This starts with realizing we have a perception problem in the first place, acknowledging it, and trying to come around from behind the curtain, not so that we can accept the other’s views (because I don’t want to sing a different song), but so that we can look off the same sheet music.

We have to recognize that we can’t just tap louder, or more insistently. We have to help people to see reality–to hear the song–the way that we believe it to be, before we can expect them to sing along.

We use stories to help people connect those affected by current policies. We use the language of their own values to root the policy changes we seek.

We listen, even when we know that we have something really important to say.

It doesn’t mean that we’ll necessarily end up in perfect harmony with those whose tunes are much different than ours. It doesn’t mean that we silence our own songs.

It means that we recognize that what is beautiful music to our ears may be completely unrecognizable to others.

And, so, our tapping can get lost in translation, when we know that ours is a song that must be heard.

Horrible stuff I wouldn’t even dare to make up

I thought about, for this April Fool’s Day, making up something really awesome in the social policy world. But then I thought that would be super depressing, to find out that it was just a joke.

And, so, then I thought about making something up that’s really horrible, because that would make us feel better, right, to find out that it was a trick?

But, then I worried that I’d never be able to make up something so terrible that it would seem at all suspicious. Which was super depressing, too.

So, then I decided that I’d MUCH rather be angry than sad, about the assaults on social work values and on those we serve. So I scrolled through my email archives to find some of the horrible stuff that sounds so outlandishly awful that it should be made up, that I’ve collected over the past couple of months, for a sort of “should be April Fool’s jokes but we’re not laughing, so let’s do something about it” list.

That was too wordy a title even for me.

In no particular order, here are some completely unfunny, all-too-true examples of why social work advocacy is so needed.

No joke.

  • Tea Party group in my own state of Kansas depicts President Obama as a skunk, in an overtly racist smear. I’m grateful not only to the local NAACP chapter for speaking out on this but also for my good friends at the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, for helping us see how this connects to very worrisome trends of anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric (and action) within Tea Party groups.
  • City of Topeka repeals its domestic violence law in order to avoid having to pay to prosecute misdemeanors, after the County DA announced that his office would no longer do so, in order to save money. This was really controversial, with some advocates applauding the City Council’s decision as calling the DA’s bluff, but I side with those who feel that it sent a really dangerous signal, in addition to resulting in the failure to charge at least several perpetrators whose crimes were committed during the time during which they were, essentially, not crimes. Women struggling to flee abuse should not be pawns in an intra-governmental budget showdown. Period.
  • 96-year-old African-American woman who voted even during the Jim Crow era blocked by Tennessee’s “voter ID” law. Honestly, I had hoped that I was just being paranoid about these laws being an attack on our most fundamental democratic rights. Obviously not.
  • Alabama. Enough said.

    It shouldn’t be so hard to come up with a list of totally wild things, pulled from our imaginations, that would be instantly recognizable as fabrications.

    Maybe that’s my new advocacy goal: make “ridiculous” mean something again, in the policy context.

    A year from now, I want to be foolable again.

Spend your “extra” day fighting a losing battle

The way I see it, folks, tomorrow is a freebie.

It’s a totally bonus day that we only get once every four years.

You won’t have a February 29th next year, and you got by without one last year. Since we don’t plan on it, then, it’s essentially a total bonus, right?

So here’s my thought:

Let’s “waste” this extra day fighting some battles we’ll almost certainly lose. You know the ones–they need to be fought, to right a wrong or just stir up some trouble for those who need to be troubled. But we avoid them, because it seems more prudent to focus our energies on more attainable victories.

But not tomorrow.

Those 24 hours are a calendar’s gift, so we might as well throw them away on some of these hopeless causes.

My list, to get the day started:

  • Public assistance eligibility for immigrant families–can you think of a less popular cause? But economic hardship sentences some citizen children of immigrant parents to a lifetime of reduced life chances, and financial desperation traps some immigrant women in violent homes. Our public assistance systems are designed to reduce hardship and provide a safety net, and these families–part of our communities–deserve that, too.
  • Tax fairness–okay, so I fight this one on some of the other days, too, but I figure I can spare a few extra hours today. We need a revenue system equal to the challenges that face us, as a state and a country, and maybe this Leap Day can put us over the top.
  • Electing truly progressive candidates to my state legislature–most of the year I’ll do some campaigning for some allies whose relatively moderate views make them important stopgaps in our current political environment, but I have dreams of seeing some folks with big plans and huge hearts elected, and maybe some fundraising calls on this extra afternoon can help.
  • Peace on earth–yeah, I know. But, then, I ask myself: what have I done lately to try to stop war and promote peace? The answer, sadly, is not much, even though I very much want my kids to grow up in a safer world. I’ll spend some time today checking out the activities of peace groups local and international, and find a way to contribute some of my time (or, most likely, my money) as an investment in the future I want for them, and for us all.

The way I see it, we spend too much energy talking ourselves out of some of the fights we really should embrace.

Pragmatism is overrated, and the greatest movements for social justice certainly never conducted a feasibility analysis first.

We have to be strategic, but we also have to be bold. And stubborn. And, sometimes, a bit foolhardy.

So, what’s on your list of losing battles for our bonus day?

Happy February 29th.